Saturday, March 31, 2012

Educators Learn the Value of Southern Louisiana's Maritime Forest Ridges

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

"Healthy wetlands support our fisheries, our industry, and our communities,” said Mel Landry (pictured in (1) above), sitting on a boat heading to Port Fourchon's Maritime Forest Ridge from the mainland's marina. “By restoring habitat, we are preserving an engine of job-creation and economic growth.”

Landry, a Marine Habitat Resource Specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Restoration Center, joined up with the educators on the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and New York Sea Grant (NYSG)-led plant restoration and wetlands education trip during their final days in the region in late February around Port Fourchon, Louisiana's southernmost port.

This sea port shows significant petroleum industry traffic from offshore Gulf oil platforms and drilling rigs as well as the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port pipeline. With primary service markets in domestic deepwater oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production in the Gulf of Mexico, Fourchon has earned the tagline "The Gulf's Energy Connection" for several reasons: (a) it has over 600 oil platforms within a 40-mile radius, (b) it's port currently services over 90% of the Gulf's deepwater oil production, and (c) this area furnishes 16-18% of the U.S. oil supply.

In addition to being noted as an economic asset for its abundance of fossil fuels, Port Fourchon is also home to some unique environmental projects. For over 10 years, the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) has partnered with the Greater Lafourche Port Commission and other organizations for a plant re-establishment effort on a maritime ridge located just offshore from the Port Fourchon Marina. Ridges such as this one are extremely important to many animals, including the millions of migrating birds that cross the Gulf of Mexico in the spring each year on their way back to their breeding grounds in the eastern United States and Canada.

Landry, a former BTNEP Public Involvement Coordinator, was accompanied by several current BTNEP staff for this habitat restoration trip, including their Plant Materials Coordinator Matt Benoit (pictured in (2) above)

"We'd like to establish a maritime forest here [on the ridge, pictured in (3) below]," said Benoit. If successful, BTNEP and its partners will help to minimize the impacts of strong storms, including wetlands loss, among other issues. These efforts don't come without their own set of challenges, though.

"We're trying to determine which species will thrive on the ridge, the ones that will do best giving the high salinity in this environment," says Benoit. BTNEP works through this process via a volunteer program where numerous groups, including ours, pitch in each year.

During our group's first effort with BTNEP in February 2011, the educators planted nearly 800 salt matrimony vine tree/shrubs on this rather vegetatively-bare ridge. These small, native evergreens have a high success rate in most soils and are also tolerant of salt spray and drought conditions. Other plants found on the ridge, including marsh hay, bitter panicum and Spartina patens, exhibit similar endurance qualities.

While most of last year's overall plantings didn't survive on the ridge due to severe drought conditions in the area, ours made it through. This year, with the help of about a dozen students from Massachusetts' Brandeis University, we planted 480 plants, including hagberry, salt matrimony vine, live oak and sand oak.

Prior to this year's planting, the educators and students unloaded the boats, which were filled with numerous racks of the various plant species (pictured in (4)-(5) above). Benoit then showed the educators and students how to prepare and plant the different species (as shown in (6)-(10) below). After holes were drilled deep enough to support the roots, the plant's soil needed some loosening up before placing it in the ground. Dirt filled in around the plant was mixed with a growing agent (such as gypsum, bag asse or a fertilizer tablet) or, in some cases, nothing (to serve as a control in the study), depending on the plant's location in the test plots laid out on the ridge (as shown in (11) - (15) below).

In order to document the success of this and other BTNEP plantings on the ridge, baseline data was gathered once all the plants were in place in the various test plots (as shown in (16)-(20) below). This information - which includes statistics on height, leaf spread and stem width - will be used as a measure of growth and survival after the plants are in the ground for a year.

"If we get a steady rain this year, maybe 20 percent of these plants will survive," said Benoit. And, though the soils on the sparsely-growing maritime forest ridge (pictured in (21) below) aren't yet optimal for large-scale survival, BTNEP staff and volunteers are making strides through this project to find the right combination of factors needed to combat the area's range of issues.

Following the planting with BTNEP on this ridge, the educators returned back to mainland and headed to Grand Isle, a barrier island in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish located at the mouth of Barataria Bay where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. On the Isle is a good example of what they helped work towards in Port Fourchon - a more robust and, hopefully one day, full maritime forest ridge.

Throughout its history, Grand Isle has been repeatedly pummeled by hurricanes. On average, Grand Isle has been affected by tropical storms or hurricanes every 2.68 years since 1877, with hurricane direct hits on average every 7.88 years.

In 1860, a 6-foot storm surge and great winds resulted in the total devastation of the island. More recently, 2005's Hurricane Katrina hit Grand Isle very hard, destroying or damaging homes and camps along the entire island. Katrina's surge reached 5 ft at Grand Isle, with large waves severely damaging the only bridge linking Grand Isle to the mainland.

The Nature Conservancy's Jean Landry took our educators on a tour of the 20 acres of undeveloped land that comprises Grand Isle's Landry Le Blanc Tract (pictured in (22) above and (23)-(24) below). "There are no other undeveloped lands on this Isle like this anymore," she said.

There are many old trees in this maritime forest ridge, some well over 100 - 500 years old (such as the one pictured in (25) below). "They're seen a lot of weather changes," says Landry. They also serve as shelter for animals and filter salt water that comes through from the Gulf during storm events.

One of the challenges facing the Nature Conservancy in this more mature maritime forest ridge is the removal of plant invasive species. The Chinese tallow tree was introduced as an ornamental tree about 150 years ago because of its colorful and shades well. But, it spreads a great deal of seeds, leading to it being quite pervasive and out-competing the area's native species. Potato vine and lantana, the latter bearing bright orange and yellow flowers (as seen in (26) below), are two other key invasives that the Nature Conservancy is working diligently to remove.

Monday, March 19, 2012

In Louisiana, Trip a Lesson in Wetlands Recovery for New York Educators

The New York Marine Education Association and New York Sea Grant's 2012 trip to the Louisiana coast made the paper yesterday (Sunday, March 18). Check out the article, "In Louisiana trip a lesson in wetlands recovery," in Newsday - see pdf of article (click here) or text version below. Newsday is one of the most popular suburban daily papers in the country, with most current circulation numbers for its Sunday paper set at around 671,820 print subscribers.

In Louisiana, trip a lesson in wetlands recovery
Newsday / March 17, 2012 by TED PHILLIPS

Educators who spent Presidents Week restoring Louisiana wetlands are bringing that knowledge back to Long Island, to work with local groups to organize wetland preservation and restoration projects here.

"What's going on there is really dire because the wetlands are being lost so quickly, but it's going on here, too," said Meghan Marrero, president of the New York State Marine Education Association, a nonprofit that promotes marine education and research and co-organized the trip.

Marrero said many people do not realize how much of Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens used to be marshes and how much we rely on what's left. "We're really trying to bring the wetlands back to what they once were because they're really important to catching pollution and preventing flooding," Marrero said.

The New York Sea Grant, a joint federal and state program run by Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Cornell University, was the other organizer.

The U.S. loses about 60,000 acres of wetlands each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Construction, dredging, pollution and farming are major causes. Hurricanes, such as Katrina, and other natural causes, can also be factors.

Fourteen educators, mostly from Long Island and the New York City area, traveled last month to New Orleans and a federal conservation center in Galliano. Together, the volunteers planted more than 1,700 plants, and they potted grasses and other vegetation for eventual planting.

"It was a good opportunity for them to see the problem down there to really become inspired to do work up here," said Larissa Graham, outreach coordinator for the Long Island Sound Study at the New York Sea Grant. Some volunteer projects that are likely to be organized on Long Island include planting native species in wetlands and pulling up invasive species, she said.

Elizabeth Platt, a science teacher at Smithtown High School West who went on the trip, said she wants to involve her students in a project to restore the tidal flow in Sunken Meadow State Park. "When they see how much effort it takes to try to restore something, that makes us more sensitive to disturbing things in the first place; and to be more concerned about protecting it," Platt said.

Friday, March 16, 2012

New York Educators Help Restore Threatened Coastal Habitats in Louisiana and at Home

Louisiana’s wetlands are being lost at an alarming rate—approximately one football field of wetlands is lost every 38 minutes due to the canals that have been dug for oil transportation, the floodwaters that have ripped through the area during hurricanes, and the damming and channelization of the Mississippi which used to supply sediment to replenish these vital areas. If these rates continue, an additional 800,000 acres of wetlands will disappear by 2040, and the Louisiana shoreline will advance inland as much as 33 miles in some areas.

Similar concerns over wetland loss are mirrored in New York wetlands such as Jamaica Bay, a 39-square-mile estuary that includes portions of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island's Nassau County. During the "State of the Bay: Past, Present and Future—Revisited" symposium, a New York Sea Grant (NYSG) co-sponsored event held at Brooklyn College this past fall, scientists discussed restoration plans for the bay's salt marshes, which are being lost at a rate of 44 acres per year.

To learn about wetland loss in Louisiana and how it relates to the habitat loss occurring in New York, a group of fourteen educators traveled to Louisiana for five days late last month to rebuild habitats devastated by recent natural and man-made events. The group was organized and led by Larissa Graham, New York Sea Grant’s Long Island Sound Study (LISS) Outreach Coordinator and Meghan Marrero, the President of New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and faculty at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY.

In addition to providing crucial resources to the nation, wetlands are extremely important in an ecological sense as they serve as feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for thousands of native animals. "Healthy wetlands support our fisheries, our industry, and our communities,” said Mel Landry, Marine Habitat Resource Specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Restoration Center. “By restoring habitat, we are preserving an engine of job-creation and economic growth.”

To rebuild wetland habitats in Louisiana, the group of educators volunteered at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service Golden Meadow Plant Materials Center in Galliano where they planted more than 1,700 gulf bluestem plants, harvested seeds, and prepped planting materials. They also worked with Louisiana Sea Grant at the Wetland Plant Center in New Orleans to pot native wetland vegetation which will be planted at various wetlands around Southern Louisiana.

Working with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, the group planted nearly 500 live oak, sand oak, and hackberry trees on a restored ridge re-created from dredged sediments that were excavated during dredging in Port Fourchon. With this and future plantings, this ridge will one day become a mature maritime forest—a crucial habitat that provides food and shelter for birds during their migration routes.

While they worked, participants learned from local experts about the natural history of Louisiana’s wetlands and the natural and man-made processes that affect them today. Marrero and Graham hope that this trip will motivate these educators to protect and restore their New York coastline.

Similar to Louisiana, New York struggles with many of the topics that the educators learned about during their restoration trip. Marrero and Graham taught the group about wetland loss and current restoration projects in Jamaica Bay and Long Island Sound, and other issues such as problems with hypoxia, or a level of low dissolved oxygen, that occurs in both the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound. They provided science-based information, highlighting much of the research that has been funded by NYSG and LISS.

“Our expectation is that these educators will see how the environmental problems effecting Louisiana are also very real here, at home, and will use what they have learned during this trip to become stewards of our New York coastline,” said Graham.

As part of the follow-up to the trip, each participant will lead a restoration project of their own over the next few months in their New York neighborhoods. Educators will involve community members and their students in invasive species removal, beach cleanups, plantings, and other projects with local environmental groups.

The group also hopes to educate others about habitat loss and other environmental problems by giving presentations to their classes and community groups and by encouraging people to visit this blog, which tells of their adventures, lessons learned, and inspirational experiences during and after the trip. Additional blog posts documenting the trip will be added throughout this month.

“NYSMEA’s goal is for our members to be stewards of the marine environment, and to ‘pay it forward’,” said Marrero, “Our students and the public will benefit from what we’ve learned in Louisiana, and engage in stewardship projects closer to home, where the environment also needs our help.”

To learn more about wetland loss along the Louisiana coast, visit or